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Sometimes it pays to go with the crowd to get funding

Sometimes it seems like nearly everybody is trying to raise money for their personal use through online “crowdfunding.” It’s clearly not just for startup businesses.

Crowdfunding — funding a project by raising many small amounts of money from a large number of people — is exploding in Hillsboro, throughout Oregon and across the United States.

Even Caroline Channing, the tall blonde in the TV show “2 Broke Girls,” is a believer. In a recent episode, she went on a crowdfunding website, gofundyourself.com, in an attempt to raise $1,500 for a new pair of pants.

If you believe in the wisdom of the crowd, the Internet is bursting with opportunities to join others investing in people.

Keith Merrow of Hillsboro recently sought to raise $15,000 on a crowdfunding website, Indiegogo.com. His band, Conquering Dystopia, wanted to use the money to record an album.

In just 45 days, his campaign raised $35,320, more than double his goal, from 792 contributors, some as far away as Australia.

Typical of arrangements on Indiegogo, contributors got no financial return on their investment, but could pick a gift based on the amount of their donation. A $10 donation spurred a digital download of the album; a $500 donation earned a VIP dinner with band members at the Hard Rock Cafe in Seattle.

Matt Peterson of Hillsboro tried to raise $3,000 on another crowdfunding website, GoFundMe.com, so he could go to a 28-day intensive wrestling camp. He reached $1,750 from 16 people in six months, then secured the rest from family.

At GoFundMe, participants usually raise money for themselves, a friend or a loved one for purposes such as medical expenses, education costs, volunteer programs and youth sports. Fundraisers can keep every donation they get or get the donations only if they reach a pre-set goal.

A different approach is offered by the crowdfunding website pave.com, an online funding platform that allows individuals to support promising high achievers. Pave claims it’s “a new investment option, not a donation.” If the investees achieve financial success, they agree to share that with their investors.

Oren Bass, who co-founded Pave in 2012, said his motivation was basic: “To provide people with what I consider a better financing option than debt — one that allows risk-taking plus the collaboration and support of the community; and to build something with both social and macro-economic impact.”

At Pave, the percentage of income an investee commits to sharing with investors varies depending on the amount of funding raised, along with how much the recipient is expected to earn.

Stephanie Walker, an engineering student at Oregon State University, recently launched a campaign on Pave. She hopes to raise $50,000 to pay off her student loans so she can pursue a career in sustainable engineering and product design with a focus on creating sustainable materials.

Close to 30 prospects have already raised over $400,000 through Pave, and a few have started making payments to their backers.

Though crowdfunding is gaining wide acceptance, there is reason to be cautious.

To guard against fraud, Pave does extensive checks to verify identities, review credit histories and check any “structured data” a prospect supplies, such as college attendance, GPA, and work employment history.

GoFundMe is much looser in its oversight.

“With hundreds of thousands of campaigns, it’s not feasible for GoFundMe to investigate the claims stated by each campaign organizer,” reads an excerpt from the GoFundMe website.

I’m not sure what motivates people to give money online to complete strangers. Maybe a lot of people who have had good fortune want to pay it forward. Maybe it’s just a charitable impulse.

But you can’t check the veracity of a lot of crowdfunding proposals. Some are the equivalent of the infamous Nigerian email scams where mass emails promise great riches to potential victims. The entire personal crowdfunding platform relies largely on trust, something scammers have always known how to exploit. So prudence should be the watchword.

Bill MacKenzie is a former congressional staff member, reporter and communications manager for a Hillsboro company.



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